Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Pleasures of Music

The plural is intentional. Music is all about pleasure, really. Yes, despite what many apologists for classical music say, even me in one of my deluded moments, the reason we listen to music, any music, is for the pleasure of it.

But there are many kinds of pleasure.

You could lay out different kinds of music in an array or spectrum ranging from one extreme to another. You could have the most cerebral music at one end and the most somatic or corporeal at the other. You could instead organize music along a spectrum between simple and complex or between intimate and public, between quiet and loud, between brief and lengthy.

We usually think in terms of "genre", when we think at all about different kinds of music. By genre is usually meant one of various forms or styles of music such as polka, symphony, EDM, glam rock, blues and so on. But this is rather a grab-bag of different criteria: polka is a national dance with a particular musical structure; symphony is a large orchestral work in several movements, each with its own structure; EDM, standing for electronic dance music, is as much a social event as a musical form; glam rock is a sub-variety of the genre of rock music typified perhaps as much by the costume as the music and blues is a traditional form of folk music associated with black people in certain areas of the US. So there is no real consistency in the definition of "genre". But this is how most people classify and identify music. If you like blues and they advertise an evening of the blues, then you might go.

But it all comes back to pleasure. Music can fulfill many roles from the facilitating of sexual congress to profound meditations on mortality, but it does so by giving us some form of pleasure.

This simple statement is wildly at odds with a great deal of what composers, especially composers in the 20th century, had to say about it. Here are some quotes to ponder:
“The aim of music is not to express feelings but to express music. It is not a vessel into which the composer distills his soul drop by drop, but a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal.” --Pierre Boulez
Now there is a clever false dichotomy: he assumes that we think the aim of music is to express something and then denies it. No, the aim of music is not to express anything, but to give pleasure.
“Whether one calls oneself conservative or revolutionary, whether one composers in a conventional or progressive manner, whether one tries to imitate old styles or is destined to express new ideas - one must be convinced of the infallibility of one's own fantasy and one must believe in one's own inspiration.”  --Arnold Schoenberg
Again with that assumption that music is supposed to express something, but with the addition of the infallible mystery of the composer's fantasy.
"One can not too often insist that in music it is the composer's inner world of tone and rhythm which matters, and that whatever technical means he chooses in order to give it structure and coherence are subject to no a priori judgment whatever." --Roger Sessions
And the listener matters not at all.
"If it is art it is not for everybody; if it is for everybody it is not art." --Arnold Schoenberg
This is one of the most famous statements of the doctrine that there are values in art higher than those of pleasure and beauty. This is a very seductive doctrine indeed, with a long history, and one that often leads people to accuse classical musicians of elitism. Now I don't think there is anything wrong with elitism, as long as it is earned, but the real problem here is that it leads to what Richard Taruskin calls a "divergence of interests" between the composer and the listener. This is caused by discounting the pleasure of the listener in favor of the fantasy or methods of the composer, what he terms the poietic fallacy.

My view is that the fantasy and methods of the composer have as their proper end the pleasure of the listener, but again, with the understanding that there are different kinds of pleasure. In other words, I am claiming that the fantasy and methods of the composer are merely instrumental to the true and final good of the listener's pleasure.

Some music is hard to appreciate if it is severed from its social or artistic context. I'm often critical of hip hop and rap, partly because of what seem to be impoverished musical means, partly because of the crudity of the accompanying videos, but seen in context there are certainly pleasurable examples. Here is one used to accompany the opening credits of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift:

That's "Six Days" by DJ Shadow and, listened to in context, it works just fine. We have lost the context of a lot of historical music, but if you are a bit accustomed to the style, that doesn't seem to matter. The social context of the Viennese divertimento is long gone, but we can still enjoy the delight and freshness of the music. Here is Mozart's Divertimento in E flat, K. 563, for string trio:

Let's go back to what I was saying about different kinds of music and how you can categorize them other than by the usual genres. Let's take the spectrum simple to complex for example. Some music is very simple:

That is a little minuet in G major that is from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, J. S. Bach's wife. It is not actually by Bach himself, but by the minor composer Christian Petzold. But is very popular nonetheless, despite its simplicity. Here is a very complex piece:

That was the Klavierst├╝ck V by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Both these pieces are for keyboard, one very simple, the other very complex. From the point of view of the composer's fantasy and methods, the Stockhausen is obviously the more important, significant, whatever adjectives you prefer. But from the point of view of the listener's pleasure, i.e. from the aesthetic point of view, the complexity or simplicity is simply not the issue. But I'm not going to make the error of simply assuming that you will enjoy the Petzold minuet more than the Stockhausen. Perhaps you hear it as trite and hackneyed and prefer to delight in the unexpected gestures of the Stockhausen. But in either case, it is not the composer's methods, nor the complexity or lack of it that is the source of aesthetic value--it is rather the pleasure you derive.

Let's pick two examples on a different spectrum, but by the same composer. Here is the Cavatina from the String Quartet in B flat, op. 130 by Beethoven:

That is a very intimate piece in many ways: it is for string quartet, meant to be played in a modest-sized room for a small audience, and it is also extremely intimate on the emotional level. Here, on the other hand, is Beethoven in a very public mode: the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op 67 for full orchestra, meant to be played in a large hall for a large audience:

Here there is likely no question of widely different aesthetic worth--both these pieces are recognized as being pinnacles of Western music--but the pleasures they evoke are certainly very different. The Cavatina stirs depths of sorrow while the Symphony inspires feelings of strength and power.

I want to leave you with a bit of a puzzle: if it is certainly not the case that classical music has a necessarily humanizing effect (how could the jailers at Auschwitz listen to Schubert in the evening and return to the torture and slaughter in the morning?), is it possible for some music to have a dehumanizing effect?


Marc Puckett said...

(Am going over to the University this afternoon to listen again to Professor Caplin. Much of what he is saying is going over my head at the speed of sound because of my musical ignorance, ha, but it is wonderful to hear a master speak of his art-- an experience of the beautiful, if you will. Has it ever happened, in the course of academic history, that the sound system has worked properly from the beginning without requiring a quarter of an hour's worth of technicians having to change cables etc?)

Bryan Townsend said...

Please extend my greetings to him from one of his "non-classical theme types" students!

Oooh, that doesn't sound very professional. Yes, most of the time it should work perfectly. Why? Because you check it beforehand!!

Marc Puckett said...

Alas, I had to substitute for a co-worker (sick child at home etc etc) yesterday, so couldn't get to WC's workshop-- the one of the three public events that I most wanted to attend, tsk.

Oh, I was early on Wednesday and they had the sound business straightened out by within five minutes of the scheduled start time. I should have been more specific: sound systems seem never to work properly etc in the public secondary schools. :-)

Shantanu said...

I think something external can only have an effect on us if we are ready to receive it. A child is not expected to understand politics, and a German is not expected to understand Russian. The conditioning we have had imposed on us from childhood matters a great deal. "Humanity" is at best a generalization that points to a different thing for each of us.

Classical music can have a humanizing effect on me if I want it to have that humanizing effect. Sometimes, the wish is buried deep, and unknown even to the person, and in such a case you could argue that the music has certain powers of its own and it is capable of humanizing, but it's still the hidden receptivity of the person himself that is at work. Music is like a conversation between the listener and the piece of music, which is always telling something, but the language must be learnt by the listener.

Unlike actual language though, music is not simply about literal meaning, it's like painting an imagination with sound. On a neurological level, speech, hearing, etc. are local processes, ie, only a certain small portion of the brain is engaged. Music, by contrast, is a global process. It engages the entire brain - memory, hearing, analysis, etc. Therefore, music is a much more total kind of communication, even though this totality takes away the level of precision possible. That is why music used as background in movies works so well. With a moving picture and music, you can transport the person to another time and place.

But, whether it can humanize or not, is a serious question. Just like the same language can be manipulated for any purpose, so can music be used for any purpose. Mozart can mean anything at all to you. It is a matter of upbringing and conditioning.

Bryan Townsend said...

Those are some very wise thoughts indeed, Shantanu. Thanks for contributing them.

Music engages not only the brain or mind, but the whole body as well.

We like to think that classical music can have a humanizing effect, like a Dickens novel that teaches a moral lesson. But the evidence seems to be otherwise...